Battleship is exactly what you would expect it to be, based on its advertising… and the wildly absurd notion of building a big-budget action film around a simplistic 40-year old board game, which is notably devoid of plot, naval strategy, and aliens. The advertising for this film has not misled you in any way. It delivers rousing patriotism, silly plot twists, absurd perversions of science, tense battle scenes, terrific special effects, and the best-looking squids you’ll ever see.
That’s “squids” as in U.S. Navy crew, not the aliens, who are actually sort of reptilian, and perhaps deeply misunderstood. In keeping with the fashion of recent alien invasion films such as Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline, and The Darkest Hour, the nameless extraterrestrial invaders have nothing to say to the people of Earth. Their ultimate goals are even more obscure than those earlier films. If only Hollywood had the wit and good taste to film something like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Footfall, in which the aliens’ motivations not only make sense, but are the key to defeating them.
The aliens of Battleship are so under-developed by the careless screenwriters that they could make a pretty good legal case for being the victims of interplanetary “profiling.” The story goes that in 2005, a powerful signal was sent to “a remote planet” that scientists thought might have Earth-like conditions. Seven years later, five alien ships arrive in response to the signal. (Note to screenwriters: if a signal traveling at the speed of light can reach another star system in seven years or less, that system is not “remote.” In fact, there are less than half a dozen stars within such a short range from Earth.)
The aliens are capable of zipping through space at very high speeds, but unfortunately seem entirely unfamiliar with the concept of “deceleration,” leading to a rough splashdown and some tragic collateral damage. Aside from the huge force field they promptly erect over the Hawaiian Islands, they do nothing aggressive until they are fired upon, and make a point of allowing a Navy ship to rescue sailors from the water. Their sole tactical objective is establishing communications with their homeworld.
And yet, nerd characters sprinkled throughout the movie natter incessantly about the fate of the Aztecs at Spanish colonial hands, and solemnly proclaim, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the appearance of the very aliens they were trying to contact constitutes an “extinction-level event.” For all we know, they’re trying to contact their home planet to file an insurance claim for the ships that didn’t survive their landing on Earth. By the end of the film, liability to the Alpha Centauri Insurance Company has increased considerably.
The invaders certainly play rough once hostilities are joined, and it’s fun to watch the beautifully filmed Navy ships adapt to superior enemy technology and devise effective countermeasures. Battleship is careful to take a few moments and explain what the heroes are trying to do before each plan is put into action, which allows audiences to appreciate the strategies in play.
Does the actual game of “Battleship,” beloved from so many of our childhoods, turn up in this movie? You bet it does, and the way it’s explained is so audaciously goofy that I found it charming. “E14… that’s a miss!”
Even more unlikely plot twists lead to the finale, including a moment of such pure patriotic glory that it excuses all of Battleship’s other flaws. Many things about this script are absurd, but it gives us a rare opportunity to see the modern surface Navy in action. I wouldn’t mind a more serious movie on that topic, without any aliens.
The problem is that we can’t have one.
You see, there are very few plausible scenarios in which the modern United States Navy would face a capable opponent… and all of them would deeply offend countries in which Hollywood sells a lot of movie tickets. Battleship is only opening in the United States this weekend, but it’s been in theaters overseas for a few weeks already, and has been doing boffo business. That wouldn’t be the case if the enemy navy was of terrestrial origin. None of the film industry’s preferred non-extraterrestrial bad guys – evil corporations, neo-Nazis, glamorous drug lords, or rogue U.S. military officers – would be likely to present much of a naval threat.
But nobody cares about the box-office receipts from “Planet G,” so you’ll have to settle for enjoying the awesome spectacle of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer unloading its full arsenal at a boat from outer space. It really is something to see.